DC Comics’ recent announcement that the Teen Titans would soon be welcoming a new gay hero into their ranks (the awkwardly named Bunker) was met with equal parts shoulder-shrugging, eye-rolling, and/or reticent approval. Other [body] parts in DC’s New 52 gave all of online fandom a lot more to talk about last week. That is unless you are one of the 184 improv comedy friends/total strangers who follows my Tumblr, in which case you saw my initial cyber-groan about Bunker get reblogged with the expediency of a picture of a cat stuck between two puffy couch cushions (sidenote: adorable).
The difference is that these reblogs weren’t driven by the innate human urge to praise the cute so much as the innate human urge to correct people on the internet.
I now stand not-quite-corrected (because I WAS NOT WRONG FOOTSTOMP TEETHGRIND OHTHEHUMANITY), but infinitely more aware of what the LGBTQ community wants from comics and what comics are actually giving the community. This article, which has been statistically and scientifically certified by my brain, hopes to make the wider comic book community aware of what sexual diversity in superhero comics actually looks like and what it should look like.
Please not that this is obviously my opinion, a.k.a. please don’t murder me in the comments.
What Superhero Comics Are Getting Right
As someone who puts “X-Men aficionado” well above “homosexual” on the nonexistent form that ranks your self-descriptors, I relate to the everyman gays that populate the superhero universes. I love that Wiccan and Hulkling’s relationship is no more glamorous than any other teen romance. I am thankful that show tunes haven’t been shoehorned into the newly gay Rictor’s repertoire of references. I am glad Midnighter is his own character when his logline (gay Batman) could easily have caused him to be a one-note character. I am a gay man who does not relate to pop culture’s relegation of me as an accessory (one of Kathy Griffin’s interchangeable “gays”) or a club-hungry political point (Gaga’s “Born this Way”). Therefore, I welcome seeing these depictions in comics. The gay superheroes are heroes first and gay second, and that’s the way I prefer it.
Comics are squeaking by with an “okay” based on the assumption that gay characters are going to continue to appear regularly for the foreseeable future. Comics have a lot of catching up to do before they start to resemble the real world, but I believe they’re well on their way. The number of gay comic book characters has quadrupled over the last decade (I based this on no facts at all!) and, to emphasize my first point, they have been characters first and gay second. Victoria Hand appeared in a dozen Marvel comics during the “Dark Reign” storyline before her lesbianism was relevant to a story and made a plot point. In recent years, Marvel and DC have made a micro-push for more gay characters, which leads us to the aforementioned Bunker.
I was initially full of “ugh” when I read about Bunker’s impending arrival. He’s flamboyant and fabulous, wearing pink, purple and a faux-hawk. And he’s gay. To my mind, this was the comic book equivalent of “Born This Way.” Both were created in the hopes of bringing a greater understanding of gay culture, but they both reeked of stereotypes that when perpetuated further marginalize the gay men that don’t want to be a “queen,” no matter how much Lady Gaga insists otherwise. Bunker wasn’t my type of gay man, just like Lady Gaga wasn’t singing to me.
This is where I change my name to Loser McWrongface, and everyone else out there having a kneejerk “no-no-no” reaction to Bunker gets in line behind me. Because just because I do not personally see myself in Bunker, that doesn’t invalidate his existence. After looking at the gay, male superheroes currently active, I realized that there is a Bunker-shaped hole in the landscape. As I saw from the response to my Tumblr post, people are excited to see someone that looks like them fight alongside Superboy, Robin and the rest of the Titans. To devalue Bunker’s outward appearance and claim (as I ignorantly did) that it is damaging to the further acceptance of the gay community is, essentially, telling all homosexual men to “straighten” up or shut up. Real gay men do look like Bunker, just like gay men look like Rictor, Apollo and (with ear-sharpening surgery) Northstar. The worry I immediately had with Bunker is how he will be portrayed. Bunker, and any minority character, has to be more than their stereotypes to ensure any kind of progress. He can’t be a thesis on gay stereotypes bound a pastel folder. Fingers are crossed that he will have a mix of characteristics that make him uniquely “Bunker” instead of uniquely Bravo.
What Superhero Comics Are Getting Wrong
When looking at the list of LGBTQ superheroes, you are left wondering where the “B”, “T” and “Q” ones are. The only characters that remotely resemble transgendered people are characters that have undergone some weird spell (Alpha Flight’s Sasquatch) or ones that are an alien (the Skrull Xavin). I don’t think we should expect transgendered youths to relate to heroes whose gender changing is either forced upon them or inhuman. The only asexuals I can think of are aliens, to which I say again, kudos for depicting the wide spectrum of sexuality in other galaxies! Perhaps shockingly, Marvel has the most prominent bisexual in comics, even if they never seemed to realize it. Mystique was in a long-term relationship with Destiny in the ’80s and had on-again/off-again hots for Forge in the ’90s as well as an established relationship with Wolverine. But how many people realize Mystique is bisexual? And how many people know that Rogue’s adopted parents were two women? Rogue, another massively popular character, is possibly the only child of a gay couple in comics, and this has never been addressed.
While I am, as I said earlier, thankful that most of the existing gay characters aren’t defined solely by their homosexuality, there is a balance between showing every part of well-rounded characters and turning characters into a one dimensional mouthpiece for an agenda. Maybe writers shy away from tackling LGBTQ issues for fear of seeming too very-special-episode-y? When series writer Kieron Gillen decided to address the horrific streak of gay teen suicides in “Generation Hope,” he did so through the use of Marvel’s mutant population. Why not gay teens? Do the X-Men only protect their minority? And when Rictor and Shatterstar finally went public with their relationship, the entire coming out process for the previously heterosexual-identifying Rictor was glossed over. There are stories here, ones that can help struggling readers realize they aren’t alone. Why aren’t they being told?
And while I stand by my statement that the number of gay characters in comics is steadily and noticably increasing, I feel I should point out that they are mostly increasing in low-profile areas. Batwoman is the only LGBTQ character to currently headline in their own series. Granted, she’s a phenomenal pioneer for the cause, has top talent attached to her and has used her own individual character traits to deal with a LGBTQ issue (her unshakeable sense of justice came into conflict with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in a brilliant initial arc by Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III). But Batwoman can’t remain the only headliner. The rest of the gay community is popping up in supporting roles, which is hardly surprising since nearly all of the leading characters in superhero comics originated sometime between the FDR and LBJ administrations. Risks have to be taken, and perhaps the next step is putting a gay character on one of the Big Teams, like the Justice League or Avengers. Stop sticking them in low-selling books and put them next to Superman.
While I genuinely believe superhero comics have made a lot of progress in their inclusion of the LGBTQ community, they still have a long way to go. Growing up reading comics in the ’90s, there were no gay characters for me to relate to. I hope that gay teenagers are reading comics and finding more to relate to than I did, and there’s a lot of fan art out there proving that they probably are. The addition of Bunker to the ranks could prove to be a great leap towards including a wider spectrum of the community, or, if handled insensitively, could become an embarrassing setback on the medium’s journey to inclusiveness. Placing worldwide acceptance on this one hero’s shoulders is a big deal, but then again, saving the world is what heroes do.